“One day I was selected among others,” recalled Elizabeth Kroó from her months in the women’s barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, “but instead of being taken to the crematoria, we were stripped. Then they searched us everywhere—the mouth, ears, and vagina. At first we thought they were looking for gold and jewels.” They were mistaken. At Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other Nazi killing centers, elderly, middleaged, and pregnant women, as well as mothers with children in tow, almost never survived and were gassed usually upon arrival. However, the young women who, like Elizabeth Kroó, survived the repeated selections, faced continuing and particular sexual risks, degradations, and assaults.
In addition to being forced to relinquish all their clothes and to wear ugly campissue rags, every emblem, token, and trace of the prisoners’ femaleness was removed. Their hair was completely shaved, often including pubic hair. Their ration of thin soup led to malnutrition and extreme stress, which frequently resulted in interruption or stoppage of the menstrual cycle. This often led to the growth of facial hair and other conditions that undermined sexual identity.
It was perhaps to counter such deliberate humiliations that many women in the concentration camps bonded with each other and became as close as sisters, often replacing real-life sisters who had so recently gone to their deaths in the gas chambers.
In the barracks, they gave each other presents and marked birthdays with cards, gifts, and other remembrances that reinorced values such as friendship, affection, humor, hope, and compassion. In the face of persistent and desperate hunger, sickness, and disease unrelieved by medicine or even the means for basic hygiene, and despite the omnipresence of death, such gestures of friendship were an often crucial element in women’s survival.
Elizabeth Kroó’s early life in her hometown of Munkacs, in what was then Czechoslovakia, had, in many ways, prepared her to be a helper of others and, in turn, to receive their appreciation and love. Spurned and rejected by her stepmother, Elizabeth had been sent away at age fourteen to a girls’ school and eventually went to live with her sister, Gabi, in Uzhorod. In November 1938, Hungary annexed Munkacs and nearby towns such as Uzhorod. When Elizabeth Kroó’s brother-in-law was drafted into a Hungarian forced labor battalion, her sister had to maintain the family’s small furniture business on her own.
Elizabeth was left in charge of the entire household, including three young nieces, Eva, Zsuzsi, and Lyvia. As the Hungarian Fascists implemented curfews and other severe restrictions, including allowing only an hour a day to shop, life became difficult, deeply frightening, and, at times, close to intolerable for Jews. Yet it got even worse in March 1944 when Germany occupied Hungary, and especially in April 1944 when the Jews were forced into ghettos.
Conditions were appalling, and typhus broke out. After a month, the Jews were marched through the streets toward the railroad tracks. Munkacs’s non-Jewish citizens lined the streets, some sympathetic but others unabashedly proclaiming how happy they were to see the expulsion of the Jews. Kroó tried to camouflage her anguish. After all, she and her sister had three small children to look after. As young as they themselves were, they tried to reassure the children and struggled not to look riven with fear.
They marched on through the crowd, by turns silent, by turns jeering. Each of the little girls had a knapsack. Six-year-old Eva stopped to adjust a strap to keep her bag from slipping. One of the Arrow Cross (Hungarian Fascist) men rushed up and struck her hard on the shoulder with the butt of his rifle. All kept walking and boarded the cattle cars, with no idea of their destination as the door was bolted shut. Shortly after, a mother reached up and out the tiny window with a small cup to catch some rainwater for her thirsty child. Spotting the mother’s hand, the German guard moved into position and shot the woman in the face. After that, the car erupted with wailing.
The Nazi strategy of terror and deception was such that Elizabeth Kroó and the others packed into the freight cars did not know they were leaving a transit point bound not for work in camps “in the east,” but for the killing center at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Days later, when they emerged onto the platforms from the trains at Birkenau, they faced the first selection. Kroó was carrying her nine-month-old niece, Lyvia, while Gabi clutched the hands of the two other little girls. Suddenly, someone reached over and tore Lyvia from Elizabeth’s arms. Elizabeth screamed, “She is my baby. We are together.” But she was not believed: Lyvia was thrust into Gabi’s arms, and then Elizabeth was separated from them and sent off in a different direction. She wondered how her sister was going to manage without her. Elizabeth worried about the bruise on Eva’s shoulder until she learned—and it did not take long—that her sister and the girls were doomed to be gassed to death and then burned in the crematoriums.
Stripped and told to stand in the cold night air, Elizabeth Kroó and the other young women prisoners, not knowing what terror would befall them the next instant, took the only measures they could to give themselves comfort. With bodies freezing and teeth chattering, they moved together in bunches, their naked bodies touching to provide warmth.
In the barracks that first night—processed and shaved, and wearing the thin camp rags—they slept on the bare wood bunks. “We snuggled up to each other, one crotch in the other to keep each other’s bodies from freezing. If one girl turned, we all turned.”
Twice a day they lined up to be counted, at dawn and at twilight—always in the freezing weather. There were no showers and no soap. The sense of self, first as a woman and then as a human being, was assaulted. The hunger was constant, people grew weaker and sicker, and the selections continued.
Periodically they had to undress and line up completely naked in front of Josef Mengele, the chief doctor at Auschwitz, and others of the SS. They had to raise their arms high for bodily examination. Sisters, friends, and relatives clung together for support. The SS sent some to the gas chambers, leaving others alive—temporarily—to suffer particular grief.
Yet friendship and caring persisted. In the absence of soap, some of the women, desperate to wash and clean, used the white disinfectant that was used to spray in the toilet holes. As a result, many developed serious rashes and painful ulcers. Kroó’s good friend Lola Katz, from Uzhorod, died of her infections. Kroó nursed her and others as best she could.
Surviving more selections for the gas chambers, Elizabeth Kroó was sent, with a group of other young women, to Ravensbrueck and then to Lippstadt, in Germany. There they were housed in a camp near factories that manufactured airplane parts for the German air force. Her friends worked in the factory, and her assignment was to clean their barracks. The women were working with small, sharp instruments and were constantly cutting themselves, leaving many pus-filled suppurating wounds on their fingers. With no medicines or bandages, the wounds on some of the women’s hands grew painful and dangerous. Kroó urged them to use their own urine as a disinfectant on their own infected fingers, and the suggestion worked.
As if responding to her caring spirit, Elizabeth Kroó’s friends celebrated her birthday, which occurred during this period. Her friends somehow made her presents—humorous cards, a dustpan created out of stolen bits of scrap metal, and a pretty clover card. The gifts were made and given even though the Nazis considered stealing scraps to be sabotage, an act that would incur the death penalty.
In April 1945, when the factory was bombed by the Allies, and the Nazis knew the end was near, they assembled the surviving women workers into a long column and marched them out of Lippstadt, away from the advancing Soviet and American armies. Although conditions at Lippstadt were an improvement over what they had experienced at Auschwitz, the women were extraordinarily weak. Walking five, ten, twenty miles a day, these marches—death marches—were sustained at a deliberately killing pace. Anyone who dropped out or could not keep up was shot on the spot. The marchers lost all sense of time and geography.
Having survived countless selections and acts of terror, and now on the verge of rescue, the women felt themselves being pushed into a new torment. These death marches were instituted throughout the Nazi camp system in the waning days of the war and left numerous dead from exhaustion or execution by the roadside. To keep this from happening, Kroó and the other women, tired and sleepy beyond their own control, devised a system whereby they periodically exchanged places: one out of five—the person in the middle—could catch a few moments of sleep even while walking because the person in the middle would be dragged along by the others and not fall down and be shot. Exchanging places in this manner increased all their chances for survival.
The Allies grew closer, and the Nazi soldiers disappeared. Elizabeth and a friend escaped to the forest, but they were far from elated. They were lost, desperately hungry, and disoriented, although they were helped by a farmer, who let them sleep in his fields and barns. And yet they had to face a new fear: the farmer told them that the liberating Russians, who were all around them, were also on a raping rampage. Kroó hid in the house of the sympathetic farmer whenever the Russians approached. If they entered the house, she hid in the toilet, standing on the seat to avoid detection.
In the spring of 1945, Elizabeth Kroó finally found her way back home, only to confirm that most of her family had been killed, including two aunts, whom the Arrow Cross had pushed off a bridge to drovvn in the Danube. The spacious family house in Munkacs was being used as a Russian military headquarters and hospital. Her sister’s beautifully furnished house in Uzhorod, where Elizabeth had lived and where she had helped care for the little girls, had been completely stripped. Torn pages from the family’s Hebrew library were strewn about the rooms.
Eventually, Elizabeth Kroó Teitelbaum recovered, married, and settled in Brooklyn, New York. Her birthday gifts from the concentration camps are witnesses to the remarkable power of friendship: “Some people who survived the hell of the Holocaust have dignity and serenity and even hope beyond the average…. The effect has given many a unique knowledge and keen appreciation for freedom and for life that others may not possess.”